Sidney Crosby saw Columbus’ Pierre-Luc Dubois lay a high hit on Jake Guentzel, the 24-year-old who’s been on Crosby’s left wing for most of his three NHL seasons, and the 5’11” Penguins captain skated over to confront the Blue Jackets’ 6’3” forward.
“I didn’t really see it besides live, and I just wanted to go over there and stick up for him,” Crosby said. “One of those things that just happened; it wasn’t planned. I saw the hit and didn’t know what was going to happen when I went over there.”
Crosby used his strength to tie up Dubois early and take him down, to the immense approval of the home crowd at PPG Paints Arena.
“It wasn’t much; more of a wrestling match than anything,” Crosby said. “I was lucky to get a five[-minute major] out of it. I don’t know what I’m doing, to be honest with you.”
Crosby might not know what he’s doing when it comes to scrapping – with 1,219 points and eight fighting majors in his 945 NHL games, he’s probably best off keeping his gloves on. But, by sticking up for his teammate, he continued to set a tone for this young Penguins season that alternate captain Evgeni Malkin established two nights before.
It isn’t coming a moment too soon.
During the offseason, Malkin, a native of Magnitogorsk, Russia, spoke of sometimes feeling hindered by English not being his native language, in terms of his comfort level taking a leadership role in the Penguins locker room.
He didn’t have any problem whatsoever after Thursday night’s opener against the Buffalo Sabres, which featured 17 giveaways, 41 shots against and startling little pushback en route to a 3-1 Penguins loss.
“Not good enough,” said Malkin, who had nine shot attempts and scored Pittsburgh’s only goal. “[The Sabres were] hungry; they’re so much faster. I think we only played 30 minutes, and we take a couple bad penalties and it’s a changed game.
“It’s a young league right now. We need to play faster; we need to play hungry. We need to be quick [to] every puck. It’s not good for us how we played tonight; we need to change.”
Malkin didn’t think game one of 82 was a moment too soon to speak up – and, considering that the opener looked remarkably similar to the Penguins’ listless, four-game sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders last spring, he was probably spot-on.
“Exhibition games are done; it’s real games right now,” he said. “We need to understand every team iis dangerous right now; it doesn’t matter if it’s Buffalo or Washington. The way we played tonight, we need to be better. One hundred percent better.”
Friday’s practice presented the opportunity to discuss that, and Malkin said he’d take an active role. Though he didn’t think his team should need the reminder.
“I’ll try to do my best,” he said. “Tomorrow we have a meeting, probably we’ll talk to each other. But the season started already. We need to understand, it’s not like we have 20 games to wake up. No, it’s already started. Every point’s important.
“Every year it’s harder and harder to make the playoffs, and we understand that. Lots of young guys, they’re hungry. They want to play in this league. We made so much mistakes in this game tonight, and [Matt Murray] played unbelievable, like 40 saves. He played amazing, but we [didn’t] play good enough.”
His head coach had a similar message.
“We just weren’t good enough; that’s what I told our guys after the game. I know we’re capable of being better,” Mike Sullivan said. “We just weren’t good enough tonight in a lot of areas of our game where we just didn’t have an element of consistency.
“I don’t think there was cooperative effort, and it’s hard to play this game in the absence of it. If we’re on a forecheck, we have two sticks there, but we’re late with the third stick, or we’re in between. We need more collective, cooperative effort in all three zones.”
Friday’s practice brought some changes on the ice – like forward Dominik Simon jumping up to the top line alongside Crosby and Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist moving down to bring his physical, net-front presence to the third line, and a swap on the bottom two defensive pairings, moving Marcus Pettersson up alongside Justin Schultz and Jack Johnson down with Erik Gudbranson.
It also brought an edge from some proud hockey players who weren’t pleased with their opening-night effort.
“It’s nice to put that behind us. It’s not our best and we know that,” Hornqvist said. “You’re going to lose games in this league, but it’s the way we lose them. We gave them so many odd-man rushes, and that’s things we can control. We have to play a little harder for each other and more for each other, too.”
That’s the collective, cooperative effort Sullivan was talking about.
“[If you have] five guys around the puck, it’s so much harder to go through guys if you have layers of support,” Horqnvist said. “It’s the same thing in the offensive zone. If you’re close to the puck, even if you bounce the puck off your stick, that’s one guy there to help you out. You need five guys out there together and, if you don’t do that, it’s going to be a long night for us.”
Finding their swagger
Saturday was a better night.
Jared McCann and Horqnvist each scored two. Newcomers Alex Galchenyuk, Brandon Tanev and Dominik Kahun each picked up their first points in a Penguins sweater. And the giveaways dropped from 17 to two as the Penguins put up a touchdown against the Columbus Blue Jackets, winning 7-2.
“It took us a while to find our swagger, and it’s something this team needs to play with,” McCann said. “We’ve got guys with so much skill and you need to make plays, but sometimes you’ve just got to keep it simple.”
Things weren’t all positive. Malkin tripped over Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, got pushed awkwardly into the boards and missed the rest of the second period and all of the third.
Malkin trips over Letang and takes a bump while on his knee. He slowly but immediately heads down the tunnel. pic.twitter.com/qbLCSIgOiU
— ToughCall 🇨🇦 (@ToughCallBlog) October 6, 2019
Center Nick Bjugstad also left for an undisclosed reason in the third, creating a problem at that position for Pittsburgh. On the bright side, McCann slotted in at his natural position of center and played well.
Friday’s line changes appeared to pay off. Even the Johnson/Gudbranson pairing, which on paper doesn’t look promising, was a plus-three on the night, with an even-strength corsi-for percentage above 50% (54.2 for Johnson; 56.0 for Gudbranson).
“We all knew in the room what happened Thursday night,” Gudbranson said. “We came into practice Friday and it was a little tense; there was an edge to that practice which was really good. It’s a good sign for this group to bounce back with an effort like that tonight.”
With 27 career fights, what was Gudbranson’s reaction to Crosby dropping the gloves?
“Mixed emotions,” the 6’5” defenseman said. “At the start, I’m used to doing stuff like that, so I got a little bit excited. But then you realize it’s Sid throwing punches. He’s not the most technical guy, but he’s really strong and that helps. He was able to overpower [Dubois] and do a good job.”
The message he sent with the game he played – notching two assists and four takeaways but, alas, ending one goal shy of a Gordie Howe hat trick – was loud and clear, too.
“[Crosby and Malkin] are such great players, but they’re great leaders as well,” Sullivan said. “Sid sticks up for Jake tonight; he’s a courageous guy. They’re great leaders, they know what it takes to win, and I think that’s why they’ve had the success that they’ve had here in Pittsburgh.”
Saturday, hitting the reset button on a lethargic start to the regular season felt like success enough.
“It’s one game, and we did a good job of burying the chances we got and making sure we continued to have good habits regardless of the score,” Crosby said. “It’s something we can build off of. I think there’s still some areas we can improve, but it’s good to get a win.”